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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that forms in the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system. It helps protect the body from infection and disease.
The lymph system is made up of the following:
Anatomy of the lymph system, showing the lymph vessels and lymph organs including lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. Lymph (clear fluid) and lymphocytes travel through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances. The lymph enters the blood through a large vein near the heart.
Lymph tissue is also found in other parts of the body such as the lining of the digestive tract, bronchus, and skin. Cancer can spread to the liver and lungs.
There are two general types of lymphomas: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This summary is about the treatment of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, including during pregnancy.
For information about other types of lymphoma, see the following PDQ summaries:
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be indolent or aggressive.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma grows and spreads at different rates and can be indolent or aggressive. Indolent lymphoma tends to grow and spread slowly, and has few signs and symptoms. Aggressive lymphoma grows and spreads quickly, and has signs and symptoms that can be severe. The treatments for indolent and aggressive lymphoma are different.
This summary is about the following types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma:
Indolent non-Hodgkin lymphomas
Aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphomas
There are two types of anaplastic large cell lymphoma:
Older age, being male, and having a weakened immune system can increase the risk of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
These and other risk factors may increase the risk of certain types of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma:
Signs and symptoms of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma include swollen lymph nodes, fever, drenching night sweats, weight loss, and fatigue.
These signs and symptoms may be caused by adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
When fever, drenching night sweats, and weight loss occur together, this group of symptoms is called B symptoms.
Other signs and symptoms of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may occur and depend on the following:
Tests that examine the lymph system and other parts of the body are used to diagnose and stage adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
If cancer is found, the following tests may be done to study the cancer cells:
Other tests and procedures may be done depending on the signs and symptoms seen and where the cancer forms in the body.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
For non-Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy, treatment options also depend on:
Some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma spread more quickly than others do. Most non-Hodgkin lymphomas that occur during pregnancy are aggressive. Delaying treatment of aggressive lymphoma until after the baby is born may lessen the mother's chance of survival. Immediate treatment is often recommended, even during pregnancy.
After adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out whether cancer cells have spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out the type of cancer and if cancer cells have spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. The results of the tests and procedures done to diagnose non-Hodgkin lymphoma are used to help make decisions about treatment.
The following tests and procedures may also be used in the staging process:
For pregnant women with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, staging tests and procedures that protect the unborn baby from the harms of radiation are used. These tests and procedures include MRI (without contrast), lumbar puncture, and ultrasound.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
The following stages are used for adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma:
Stage I adult lymphoma. Cancer is found in one or more lymph nodes in a group of lymph nodes or, in rare cases, cancer is found in the Waldeyer's ring, thymus, or spleen. In stage IE (not shown), cancer has spread to one area outside the lymph system.
Stage I adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma is divided into stages I and IE.
In stage I, cancer is found in one of the following places in the lymph system:
In stage IE, cancer is found in one area outside the lymph system.
Stage II adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma is divided into stages II and IIE.
In stage II, the term bulky disease refers to a larger tumor mass. The size of the tumor mass that is referred to as bulky disease varies based on the type of lymphoma.
Stage III adult lymphoma. Cancer is found in groups of lymph nodes both above and below the diaphragm; or in a group of lymph nodes above the diaphragm and in the spleen.
In stage III adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:
Stage IV adult lymphoma. Cancer (a) has spread throughout one or more organs outside the lymph system; or (b) is found in two or more groups of lymph nodes that are either above the diaphragm or below the diaphragm and in one organ that is outside the lymph system and not near the affected lymph nodes; or (c) is found in groups of lymph nodes above the diaphragm and below the diaphragm and in any organ that is outside the lymph system; or (d) is found in the liver, bone marrow, more than one place in the lung, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The cancer has not spread directly into the liver, bone marrow, lung, or CSF from nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IV adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer:
Adult non-Hodgkin lymphomas may be grouped for treatment according to whether the cancer is indolent or aggressive, whether affected lymph nodes are next to each other in the body, and whether the cancer is newly diagnosed or recurrent.
See the General Information section for more information on the types of indolent (slow-growing) and aggressive (fast-growing) non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can also be described as contiguous or noncontiguous:
Recurrent adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The lymphoma may come back in the lymph system or in other parts of the body. Indolent lymphoma may come back as aggressive lymphoma. Aggressive lymphoma may come back as indolent lymphoma.
There are different types of treatment for patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
For pregnant women with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, treatment is carefully chosen to protect the unborn baby. Treatment decisions are based on the mother's wishes, the stage of the non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the age of the unborn baby. The treatment plan may change as the signs and symptoms, cancer, and pregnancy change. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.
Patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating lymphomas.
Treatment will be overseen by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer, or a hematologist, a doctor who specializes in treating blood cancers. The medical oncologist may refer you to other health care providers who have experience and are experts in treating adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:
Treatment for adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may cause side effects.
For information about side effects that begin during treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Side effects from cancer treatment that begin after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Treatment with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or stem cell transplant for non-Hodgkin lymphoma may increase the risk of late effects.
Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:
Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your doctor about the effects cancer treatment can have on you. Regular follow-up to check for late effects is important.
Nine types of standard treatment are used:
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.
External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer. Sometimes total-body irradiation is given before a stem cell transplant.
Proton beam radiation therapy is a type of high-energy, external radiation therapy that uses streams of protons (tiny particles with a positive charge) to kill tumor cells. This type of treatment can lower the amount of radiation damage to healthy tissue near a tumor, such as the heart or breast.
External radiation therapy is used to treat adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and may also be used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
For a pregnant woman with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, radiation therapy should be given after delivery, if possible, to avoid any risk to the unborn baby. If treatment is needed right away, the woman may decide to continue the pregnancy and receive radiation therapy. A lead shield is used to cover the pregnant woman's abdomen to help protect the unborn baby from radiation as much as possible.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using two or more anticancer drugs. Steroid drugs may be added, to lessen inflammation and lower the body's immune response.
Systemic combination chemotherapy is used for the treatment of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Intrathecal chemotherapy may also be used in the treatment of lymphoma that first forms in the testicles or sinuses (hollow areas) around the nose, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, Burkitt lymphoma, lymphoblastic lymphoma, and some aggressive T-cell lymphomas. It is given to lessen the chance that lymphoma cells will spread to the brain and spinal cord. This is called CNS prophylaxis.
Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.
When a pregnant woman is treated with chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the unborn baby cannot be protected from being exposed to chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy regimens may cause birth defects if given in the first trimester.
See Drugs Approved for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for more information.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy.
CAR T-cell therapy. A type of treatment in which a patient's T cells (a type of immune cell) are changed in the laboratory so they will bind to cancer cells and kill them. Blood from a vein in the patient's arm flows through a tube to an apheresis machine (not shown), which removes the white blood cells, including the T cells, and sends the rest of the blood back to the patient. Then, the gene for a special receptor called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) is inserted into the T cells in the laboratory. Millions of the CAR T cells are grown in the laboratory and then given to the patient by infusion. The CAR T cells are able to bind to an antigen on the cancer cells and kill them.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Monoclonal antibody therapy, proteasome inhibitor therapy, and kinase inhibitor therapy are types of targeted therapy used to treat adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Types of monoclonal antibodies include:
Venetoclax may also be used to treat mantle cell lymphoma. It blocks the action of a protein called B-cell lymphoma-2 (BCL-2) and may help kill cancer cells.
If the blood becomes thick with extra antibody proteins and affects circulation, plasmapheresis is done to remove extra plasma and antibody proteins from the blood. In this procedure, blood is removed from the patient and sent through a machine that separates the plasma (the liquid part of the blood) from the blood cells. The patient's plasma contains the unneeded antibodies and is not returned to the patient. The normal blood cells are returned to the bloodstream along with donated plasma or a plasma replacement. Plasmapheresis does not keep new antibodies from forming.
Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change.
Antibiotic therapy is a treatment that uses drugs to treat infections and cancer caused by bacteria and other microorganisms.
Surgery may be used to remove the lymphoma in certain patients with indolent or aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The type of surgery used depends on where the lymphoma formed in the body:
Patients who have a heart, lung, liver, kidney, or pancreas transplant usually need to take drugs to suppress their immune system for the rest of their lives. Long-term immunosuppression after an organ transplant can cause a certain type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (PLTD).
Small bowel surgery is often needed to diagnose celiac disease in adults who develop a type of T-cell lymphoma.
Stem cell transplant
Stem cell transplant is a method of giving high doses of chemotherapy and/or total-body irradiation and then replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient (autologous transplant) or a donor (allogeneic transplant) and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Stem cell transplant. (Step 1): Blood is taken from a vein in the arm of the donor. The patient or another person may be the donor. The blood flows through a machine that removes the stem cells. Then the blood is returned to the donor through a vein in the other arm. (Step 2): The patient receives chemotherapy to kill blood-forming cells. The patient may receive radiation therapy (not shown). (Step 3): The patient receives stem cells through a catheter placed into a blood vessel in the chest.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Vaccine therapy is a cancer treatment that uses a substance or group of substances to stimulate the immune system to find the tumor and kill it.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of indolent stage I and indolent, contiguous stage II adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include the following:
If the tumor is too large to be treated with radiation therapy, the treatment options for indolent, noncontiguous stage II, III, or IV adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma will be used.
Treatment of indolent, noncontiguous stage II, III, or IV adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include the following:
Other treatments for indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma depend on the type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Treatment may include the following:
Treatment of aggressive stage I and aggressive, contiguous stage II adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include the following:
Treatment of aggressive, noncontiguous stage II, III, or IV adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include the following:
Other treatments depend on the type of aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Treatment may include the following:
For information on the treatment of lymphoblastic lymphoma, see Treatment Options for Lymphoblastic Lymphoma and for information on the treatment of Burkitt lymphoma, see Treatment Options for Burkitt Lymphoma.
Treatment of adult lymphoblastic lymphoma may include the following:
Treatment of adult Burkitt lymphoma may include the following:
Treatment of indolent, recurrent adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include the following:
Treatment of aggressive, recurrent adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include the following:
Treatment of indolent lymphoma that comes back as aggressive lymphoma depends on the type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and may include radiation therapy as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. Treatment of aggressive lymphoma that comes back as indolent lymphoma may include chemotherapy.
Indolent Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma During Pregnancy
Women who have indolent (slow-growing) non-Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy may be treated with watchful waiting until after they give birth. (See the Treatment Options for Indolent Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma section for more information.)
Aggressive Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma During Pregnancy
Treatment of aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
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Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lymphoma/patient/adult-nhl-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389337]
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Last Revised: 2021-01-08
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